Hawaii's Flora & Fauna
Hawaii boasts every climate on the planet, excluding the two most extreme: arctic tundra and arid desert. The Islands have wine-growing regions, cactus-speckled ranchlands, icy mountaintops, and the rainiest forests on earth. The Galapagos has nothing
on Hawaii's biodiversity—more than 90% of Hawaiian plants and animals are endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on earth. Most of the plants you see while walking around, however, aren't Hawaiian at all. Tropical flowers such as plumeria, orchids, red ginger, heliconia, and anthuriums are Asian or South American imports now growing wild on all the Islands.
Native Hawaiian plants are weird-looking, in the best sense. Take the silversword, for example. A giant, furry firework of a plant, it grows in one of the world's harshest climates: the summits of Haleakala and Mauna Kea. Its 7-foot stalk, brimming with red or pale yellow flowers, blooms once and then dies. Ohia trees -- thought to be the favorite of Pele, the volcano goddess -- bury their roots in fields of once-molten lava and sprout ruby pom-pom-like lehua blossoms. The deep yellow petals of 'ilima (once reserved for royalty) are tiny discs, which make the most elegant leis.
To match Hawaii's unique flora, fantastic birds and insects evolved. Honeycreepers, distant relatives of the finch, have fabulously long, curved bills perfect for sipping nectar from lehua blossoms. The world's only carnivorous caterpillar can snatch a Hawaiian picture-wing fly from the air in less than a second. Hawaii's state bird, the nene goose, is making a comeback from its former endangered status. It roams freely in parts of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. Pairs who mate for life are often spotted ambling across roads in Haleakala or Hawaii Volcanoes national park.
At the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, hundreds of Laysan albatross, wedge-tail shearwaters, red-footed boobies, and other marine birds glide and soar within photo-op distance of visitors to Kilauea Lighthouse. Boobie chicks hatch in the fall and emerge from nests burrowed into cliff-side dirt banks and even under-any launching pad from which the fledgling flyer can catch the nearest air current.
Hawaii's two native mammals are rare sights. Doe-eyed Hawaiian monk seals breed in the northwestern Islands. With only 1,500 left in the wild, you probably won't catch many lounging on the beaches of Hawaii's populated islands, though they have been spotted on the shores of Kauai in recent years. You can see rescued pups and adults along with Hawaiian green sea turtles at Sea Life Park and the Waikiki Aquarium on Oahu. The shy Hawaiian bat hangs out primarily at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island.